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#932908 08/01/20 05:46 AM
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Maria Mitchell - born on August 1, 1818 in Nantucket, Massachusetts - was a true pioneer woman. But she didn't brave a physical wilderness. Hers was the harder job of pioneering higher education for women. She was the first American woman to discover a comet, the first to be elected to scientific societies, and the first woman professor of astronomy.

Maria Mitchell

In her own words, America's first woman professor of astronomy tells of her meetings with the great and good of the nineteenth century. Maria Mitchell's sister Phebe collected excerpts from journals and letters to present a pot pourri of Maria's life, ideas and work.

Maria Mitchell - in Her Own Words

Doodles for Women Astronomers
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Katherine J. Mack, popularly known as Katie Mack, was born 1 May 1981. She is a theoretical cosmologist, writer and science communicator. Captivated by science as a child, she built solar-powered cars out of Lego, and was encouraged by her mother to watch Star Trek and Star Wars. Mack's grandfather worked on the Apollo 11 mission.

So, no surprise when she went to study at Cal Tech in southern California. She got a degree in physics and then went on to a PhD in astrophysics from Princeton University. Postdoctoral work followed as a research fellow at the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge in England. In 2012, Mack was a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia. And she was involved with the construction of the dark matter detector SABRE.

She had held posts at the University of North Carolina, but In June 2022 she joins the Perimeter Institute in Canada as the inaugural Hawking Chair in Cosmology and Science Communication. The institute's director said, “Her unique talents will allow her to make important contributions in all facets of Perimeter – not only as a terrific researcher, but also as a gifted science communicator who builds bridges between scientists and the wider world.”

Mack’s research concerns the physics of the universe from beginning to end, including topics such as dark matter, black holes, fast radio bursts, and the formation of the first galaxies. But in addition, throughout her career, she has also placed an emphasis on sharing science with the broader public. As @AstroKatie, she has amassed a following of more than 400,000 on Twitter. Her popular writing has appeared in major publications including Scientific American, Slate, Sky & Telescope, and Cosmos. She's also interested in the intersection of art, poetry and science.

In 2020, she released her first book, The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), which examines five ways the universe could end and the mind-blowing lessons each scenario reveals about the most important concepts in cosmology. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2020, among many other accolades, and continues a storied tradition of science communication of which Hawking himself is perhaps the most known example.

She popularly goes by the name Katie Mack. In an online discussion, a man unwisely suggested to her that she should learn some "actual SCIENCE". Her many fans were amused by her response: “I dunno, man, I already went and got a PhD in astrophysics. Seems like more than that would be overkill at this point”.

[Sources: Wikipedia, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics]

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Cecilia Payne - known later as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin - was born in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England on May 10, 1900. She studied at Cambridge University where she became interested in astronomy and was encouraged and assisted by Arthur Eddington. Although she fulfilled the requirements for a degree, the university didn't award degrees to women then. However, she was able to get a scholarship to Harvard College Observatory in the USA. Her research included many years of working with variable stars and novae, her efforts adding greatly to our understanding of the nature of these objects. Her thesis, published in 1925 as 'Stellar Atmospheres' and since described as '. . . the best Ph.D. thesis in astronomy ever written', resulted in her becoming the first recipient of a Ph.D. from Harvard College Observatory.

Payne-Gaposchkin spent her entire academic career at Harvard, and in 1956 was promoted to the position of full professor by Donald Menzel, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory. This was followed by her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, her students including many individuals who were destined to play important roles in astronomy, including Helen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph Ashbrook and Frank Drake. The minor planet 2039 Payne-Gaposchkin, discovered on 14 Feb 1974 by astronomers at the Agassiz Station of the Harvard College Observatory in Massachusetts, USA, is named in her honour.

[Society for the History of Astronomy]

More about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

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In the late 19th century, Harvard College Observatory was one of the world's top observatories. This was due to the vision, commitment and organizing skills of its director Edward Pickering. But his vision was realized through the hard work and dedication of a team of women assistants sometimes dismissively called Pickering's harem. One of the women was Williamina (Mina) Fleming, who began as a housekeeper and ended her career as an astronomer of international repute.

Williamina Paton Stevens was born in Dundee, Scotland on May 15, 1857. Here is more about the life of Williamina Fleming.

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Achievements may be honored with prizes and medals, but few get represented as children's toys. However Lego responded to a proposal to showcase women in space and astronomy by making a Lego set representing four such women and their major contributions. Who were these women? One of them was American astronomer Nancy Grace Roman who was born on May 16, 1925 in Nashville, Tennessee.
NASA Women in Lego

Roman was a noted American astronomer who made important contributions to stellar classification and motions, and became the first female executive at NASA, and served as NASA's first Chief of Astronomy throughout the 1960s and 1970s, establishing her as one of the "visionary founders of the US civilian space program". She created NASA's space astronomy program and is known to many as the "Mother of Hubble" for her foundational role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope. Throughout her career, Roman was also an active public speaker and educator, and an advocate for women in the sciences. [Wikipedia]

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English astronomer Mary Adela Blagg was born in Cheadle, Staffordshire on May 17, 1858.

It was when Mary was approaching middle age that she first took up an interest in astronomy, at which time she attended a course of lectures given at Cheadle by Joseph Alfred Hardcastle (a grandson of John Herschel). Hardcastle introduced her to Samuel Arthur Saunder, then President (1902-1904) of the British Astronomical Association, with whom she collaborated to produce ‘A Collated List of Lunar Formations’ published in 1913.

She carried out a great deal of useful work on variable stars (in collaboration with Herbert Hall Turner) but is probably best remembered for her contributions towards the development of a uniform system of lunar nomenclature. It should be pointed out that, although the labelling of lunar formations is now standardized, there was no naming system in operation up to the early-19th century. Different lunar maps of the period had discrepancies in terms of identification, with the same crater or other feature having anything up to three or four different names, depending on who drew up the map. The work put in by Mary Adela Blagg and Samuel Arthur Saunder went a long way towards rectifying this situation.

After the publication of several research papers for the Royal Astronomical Society, she was elected as a fellow in 1916, after being nominated by Professor Turner. She was one of five women to be elected simultaneously, the first women to become Fellows of the society.

In 1920, Mary joined the newly formed International Astronomical Union (IAU), where she continued her work on lunar nomenclature. This culminated in 1935 with the publication of her two-volume ‘Named Lunar Formations’, written in collaboration with the Czech astronomer Karl Müller for the Lunar Commission of the IAU. It became a standard reference on the subject.
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Sally Ride was born in Los Angeles, California on May 26, 1951, and went on to lead an extraordinary life.

When NASA broadened its criteria for astronaut candidates - instead of just choosing test pilots - Ride applied. She was one of those chosen out of the thousands of applicants. Her academic qualifications were impressive. At Stanford University, she earned a BS degree in physics alongside a BA in English. She followed this up with an MSc and then a PhD in astrophysics. Although Ride became a scientist, she had also been an excellent tennis player with professional potential.

As an astronaut, she did two years of ground support before being assigned a space mission. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space. (Two female cosmonauts had preceded her.) Aged 32 on her first flight, she is still the youngest American astronaut to have gone into space. Ride went on to have a second space mission and would have had a third, but the shuttle program was thrown into disarray by the 1986 Challenger disaster. Her expertise was valued so highly that she served on the accident investigation boards for Challenger and later, having left NASA, for Columbia.

After NASA, Ride went into academia, and also co-founded Sally Ride Science to encourage the interest of young people – especially girls – in science and math.

Sadly, in 2012 Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer.

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Achievements may be honored with prizes and medals, but few get represented as children's toys. However Lego responded to a proposal to showcase women in space and astronomy by making a Lego set representing four such women and their major contributions. Who were these women? NASA Women in Lego

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Ruby Payne-Scott, the first woman radio astronomer, was born on 28 May 1912 in Grafton, New South Wales, Australia. [The photo is of her as a student in the 1930s.]

Payne-Scott started at Sydney University at 16 and became their third female physics graduate. She went on to work at the Cancer Research Institute from 1936 to 1938 before a brief transition into teaching - the result of a shortage of jobs for female physicists. Shortly after this, she joined AWA, a prominent electronics manufacturer and operator of two-way radio communications systems in Australia. Although originally hired as a librarian, her work quickly expanded to leading the measurements laboratory and performing electrical engineering research.

But having grown displeased with its research environment, she left AWA in August 1941 and joined the Radiophysics Laboratory of the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). During World War II, she was engaged in top secret work investigating radar technology, becoming Australia's expert on the detection of aircraft using Plan Position Indicator (PPI) displays.

After the war, radio astronomy began to develop in Australia, as elsewhere. Payne-Scott carried out some of the key early solar radio astronomy observations at Dover Heights (Sydney). In the years 1945 to 1947, she discovered three of the five categories of solar bursts originating in the solar corona and made major contributions to the techniques of radio astronomy.

But there were obstacles for women. One of the petty problems she had to argue against was the expectation that women should wear skirts rather than shorts (such fun when you’re climbing up ladders and aerials). More serious were the issues of equal pay (reduced to 75% of the male rate in 1949 for anyone new to the organisation) and the requirement for women who got married to resign. In fact, Ruby married in 1944 but the CSIRO administration didn’t find this out until 1950.
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Irish astronomer Mary Brück, née Conway, was born in Ballivor, County Meath on May 29, 1925.

A graduate of the University College Dublin in 1945 (BSc) and 1946 (MSc), and of the University of Edinburgh in 1950 (PhD), she went on to work at the Dunsink Observatory (pictured), where the German-born astronomer Hermann Alexander Brück had been appointed Director in 1947. She and Hermann Brück were married in 1951 and, following his appointment as Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1957, the family relocated to Edinburgh. Mary was appointed a part-time lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in 1962, eventually rising to the post of senior lecturer and University Fellow, and eventually retiring in 1987. Although her astronomical research included investigations of stars, the interstellar medium and the Magellanic Clouds, Mary Teresa Brück is probably best remembered as a writer, with a particular interest in the history of science. Her published works include ‘The Peripatetic Astronomer: The Life of Charles Piazzi Smyth’ (in collaboration with her husband); ‘Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics’; ‘Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy: Stars and Satellites’; and the popular and influential ‘Ladybird Book of the Night Sky’ (1965). (Image of Mary Teresa Brück courtesy of Royal Observatory, Edinburgh).
[Society for the History of Astronomy]

In May 2001 the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh awarded Dr Brück their Lorimer Medal, given "in recognition of meritorious work in diffusing the knowledge of Astronomy among the general public". The photo shows Dr Mary Bruck (left) with Lorna McCalman (President) and Dr Dave Gavine (former recipient of medal).
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American research scientist Claudia Joan Alexander was born on May 30, 1959 in Vancouver, Canada, but grew up in Santa Clara, California. She earned her BA in geophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, her masters in geophysics & space physics from UCLA, and a PhD in atmospheric, oceanic & space sciences at the University of Michigan.

Alexander went to work at the United States Geological Survey, and then to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She was the science coordinator for an instrument aboard the Galileo spacecraft and in the mission's final phase, was the project manager. As a planetary scientist she researched a number of topics, and also became the science coordinator on the Cassini mission to Saturn. In 2000 she became the project manager for NASA's contribution in the European Rosetta mission to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

As a scientist, she was also a science communicator and an advocate for women and minorities in STEM fields. She mentored young people, especially girls of color. And in addition to being a scientist, she was a published author, writing children's books and science fiction.

Claudia Alexander worked with the Rosetta mission until her untimely death from cancer in 2015. Her colleagues named a feature on Comet C-G after her. The Director of NASA's JPL wrote in tribute:
Quote
Claudia brought a rare combination of skills to her work as a space explorer. Of course with a doctorate in plasma physics, her technical credentials were solid. But she also had a special understanding of how scientific discovery affects us all, and how our greatest achievements are the result of teamwork, which came easily to her. Her insight into the scientific process will be sorely missed.
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